Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes

A post-script to my last post: the (very!) long-form version of “Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes” is now available under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The sections are:

  1. Escape from Hiroshima
  2. Atomic clouds and drones
  3. Atomic bombs and drones
  4. American Hiroshimas
  5. Predator and prey
  6. Manhattan Projects 1.0 and 2.0
  7. Visual economies
  8. Little boys and blue skies

This is a draft, so if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be pleased to have them.

Nuclear narcissism

As Donald Trump‘s grotesque unfitness for office becomes ever clearer – though to most of us it was as plain as a pikestaff long before the election – a central vector of concern has been his proximity to the nuclear codes.  For background, I recommend Adam Shatz‘s essay in the LRB, ‘The President and the Bomb‘:

What’s really terrifying about Trump’s control of the bomb is that it’s no aberration: in fact, it’s utterly normal. Democratic politicians – presidents, and would-be presidents – have spoken with no less gusto of their willingness to ‘keep all options on the table’. When Obama said that he wouldn’t consider using nuclear weapons against Pakistan at a presidential debate in 2008, Hillary Clinton scolded him: ‘I don’t believe any president should make blanket statements with regard to use or non-use.’ The right to annihilate one’s enemies (or frenemies, as in the case of Pakistan) is a right no American leader can afford to relinquish, for fear that he or she would be accused of being a pushover, an appeaser – a pussy. (A president can only grab a pussy: he can’t be one.) When Obama tried to discuss a no-first-use declaration, his cabinet quickly dissuaded him. Although he achieved the nuclear agreement with Iran, averting a potential war, and expressed symbolic atonement on his visit to Hiroshima, he also oversaw a programme of nuclear modernisation, with a commitment to a trillion dollars in extra spending over thirty years, increasing America’s ability to crush its opponents in a first strike. Trump has happily inherited that programme, without, of course, crediting his predecessor.

Against this wretched backdrop, it’s worth revisiting America’s history of nuclear narcissism.

I first discussed this in my presentation of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘ at a wonderful symposium ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes‘ [see here, here, here and here], and I’ve now revisited it for the long-form version (which you can at last find under the DOWNLOADS tab).  Here is part of that new essay (‘Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through post-atomic eyes‘):

On 19 November 1945, barely 100 days after Hiroshima, Life published an illustrated essay entitled ‘The 36-Hour War’, which was informed by a report from General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold as commander of the US Army Air Force to the Secretary of War. Although the opening paragraphs predicted that in the future ‘hostilities would begin with the explosion of atomic bombs on cities like London, Paris, Moscow or Washington’ – Arnold’s report had warned that ‘the danger zone of modern war is not restricted to battle lines’ and that ‘no one is immune from the ravages of war’ [1] – the global allusion of the text was dwarfed by Alexander Leydenfrost’s striking illustration of ‘a shower of white-hot rockets’ falling on Washington DC.

In case any reader should doubt the location of what the strapline called ‘the catastrophe of the next great conflict’, the next image sprawled across two pages and presented a vast panorama looking east across the United States from 3,000 miles above the Pacific: ‘Within a few seconds atomic bombs have exploded over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boulder Dam, New Orleans, Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas and Knoxville (sic)’ killing 10,000,000 people.

Arnold’s report had suggested that there were ‘insurmountable difficulties in an active defense against future atomic projectiles.’ Now Life warned that ‘low-flying robot planes’ were even more dangerous because they would be more difficult to detect by radar – and ‘radar would be no proof at all against time bombs of atomic explosive which enemy agents might assemble in the U.S’ – so that defence was more or less impossible. A counterattack could be launched (against an enemy who remained unidentified throughout the essay), but nuclear strikes would surely be followed by invasion. By then, the US would have suffered ‘terrifying damage’: ‘All cities of more than 50,000 have been levelled’ and New York’s Fifth Avenue reduced to a ‘lane through the debris.’

That final image was unique; it was the only one to envision a nuclear attack from the ground. Perhaps that was unsurprising; the power of the image – ‘the nuclear sublime’ – was one of the central objectives of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘The weapon’s devastating power had to be seen to be believed,’ Kyo Maclear observed, in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  And above all, literally so, it was designed to be seen from the air. During the seven years of the US occupation of Japan the effects on the people who lived and died in the irradiated rubble were subject to strict censorship. Still photographs could not be published – professionals and amateurs were ordered to burn their films and prints (fortunately some refused and hid them instead) – while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed. In their place were endless images of the vast cloud towering into the sky. In fact Life had published a series of aerial views of the ‘obliteration’ of Hiroshima and the ‘disembowelling’ of Nagasaki just three months before its speculations on the 36-hour war. All those high-altitude views, and the maps that accompanied them, planed away the field of bodies: all that could be seen, deliberately so, were levelled spaces and superimposed concentric circles. In the studied absence of a visual record it was left to the imagination of writers to convey the effect of the bombs on human beings. And yet, as often as not, it was the bodies of Americans that filled the frame.

Philip Morrison’s remarkable essay for the Federation of American Scientists was at once the best informed and the most exemplary. Morrison was a former student of Oppenheimer who had worked with him on the Manhattan Project, and in July 1945 he was sent to the Mariana Islands as part of the team charged with assembling Little Boy. One month later he was on the ground in Hiroshima with the US Army mission to investigate the effects of the bomb. Their report was submitted in June 1946, but Morrison’s personal essay had appeared three months earlier and had already acknowledged the impossibility of conveying the enormity of the scene in dry and distanced scientific prose. It also proposed a solution.

‘Even from pictures of the damage realization is abstract and remote. A clearer and truer understanding can be gained from thinking of the bomb as falling on a city, among buildings and people, which Americans know well. The diversity of awful experience which I saw at Hiroshima … I shall project on to an American target.’

Warning that in any future war there would be twenty such targets – and not one bomb but ‘hundreds, even thousands’ – Morrison, as befitted someone who served with the US Army’s Manhattan Engineer District (the Manhattan Project), selected Manhattan.

‘The device detonated about half a mile in the air, just above the corner of Third Avenue and East 20th Street, near Grammercy Park. Evidently there had been no special target chosen, just Manhattan and its people. The flash startled every New Yorker out of doors from Coney Island to Van Cortland Park, and in the minute it took the sound to travel over the whole great city, millions understood dimly what had happened.’

After an endless chamber of horrors – bodies of old men ‘charred black on the side towards the bomb’, men with clothing in flames, women with ‘red and blackened burns’, and ‘dead children caught while hurrying home’; toppled brownstones, roads choked with rubble – he concluded that at least 300,000 people would have died: 200,000 ‘burned and cremated’ by volunteers, and the rest ‘still in the ruins, or burned to vapour and ash.

Hard on the heels of the Army in Hiroshima was the US Strategic Bombing Survey, whose findings were rendered in the same, impersonal voice that Morrison found wanting.   But in the concluding section of its report, the authors confessed that investigators had been bothered by the same troubling question as Morrison: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ They provided rough and ready answers, which they accepted had ‘a different sort of validity’ from the measurable data used in the preceding sections, but they insisted that their speculative calculations were ‘not the least important part of this report’ and that they were offered ‘with no less conviction.’ Acknowledging substantial differences between Japanese and American cities, the report none the less concluded that most buildings in American cities would not withstand an atomic bomb bursting a mile or a mile and a half from them, and that the vertical densities of high-rise buildings would produce large numbers of dead, injured and desperately sick people: ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.

The most vivid, visceral contrast to the dry recitations of the official reports appeared on 31 August 1946, when the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey’s epic essay on Hiroshima. It was based on interviews he had conducted with more than 40 survivors over three weeks in April. Written when he returned to New York, beyond the scrutiny of military censors, Hersey focused on six people whose stories he told in spare, unadorned prose (he later said he chose to be ‘deliberately quiet’ so that ‘the horror could be presented as directly as possible’). The essay was cinematic in its execution, cutting from individual to individual across the shattered city, and excruciating in its painstaking detail. Their splintered accounts combined a methodical matter-of-factness – the numbing one-thing-after-another of their acts of survival – with the almost unspeakable horror of what lay beyond: ‘Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery.’ Two of Hersey’s respondents were doctors, which enabled him to pan out across that vast sea of casualties (‘Wounded people supported maimed people; disfigured families leaned together’) and then bring the focus back to individuals: ‘Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.’ Hersey’s narrative moved carefully through the weeks after the blast until the results of radiation sickness began to take their toll and even the signs of a precarious normality became sinister: ‘a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green’ as wild flowers bloomed ‘among the city’s bones.

Surely this awful litany would turn the American public’s post-atomic eyes to Japan? In fact the extraordinary success of Hersey’s essay – the print run of 300,000 sold out, ‘Hiroshima’ was reprinted in many newspapers, broadcast on the radio in nightly instalments, and when it appeared in book form it became an immediate bestseller – served not only to dispel the claims of those who had sought to minimise the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it also redoubled the fears of an attack on the continental United States. In consequence, it was not only the New Yorker but also New York that dominated the American atomic imaginary in the late 1940s and 50s. Even the first mass-market edition of Hiroshima confirmed that the preoccupation with American lives had not sensibly diminished. Hersey later said he had wanted his readers ‘to identify with the characters in a direct way’ – ‘to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain’ – but the artist responsible for the cover of the paperback, Geoffrey Biggs, took that literally. His image showed what he described as ‘two perfectly ordinary people’ in ‘a city like yours or mine’: who happened to be Americans in an American city:

The publication of ‘Hiroshima’ was preceded by the two tests at Bikini Atoll, and in 1947 the official report on Operation Crossroads illustrated the vastly more spectacular effects of the second (Baker) shot by superimposing its towering cloud over Manhattan:

Perhaps the most iconic series of images of a post-atomic New York was painted by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick. They accompanied John Lear’s contribution to Collier’s in August 1950, whose title seemed to evoke Hersey’s essay only to transpose it: ‘Hiroshima USA’. A prefatory note from the editor William Davenport insisted that nothing in the report was fantasy. While ‘the opening account of an A-bombing of Manhattan may seem highly imaginative,’ he wrote, ‘little of it is invention.’

It was based on the two US military surveys of Hiroshima, interviews with officials at the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon, and advice from physicists, engineers, doctors and other experts. The description that followed was apocalyptic:

‘Aerial reconnaissance was impractical immediately after the blast because of the cloud of black grime that masked the lower city. Even after that cleared, it was only possible for the police helicopter squad to get a numb impression of the devastation. Streets could not be seen plainly. Many were blotted out entirely. In an area roughly 15 blocks long and 20 blocks across – from Canal Street north to Tenth and from Avenue B to Sullivan Street – there was now an ugly brown-red scar. A monstrous scab defiling the earth…

‘Rising gradually outward from this utter ruin … was all that was left of Manhattan between Thirty-Eighth Street and Battery Park.’

As this passage implies, however, Lear’s vantage point was far from Hersey’s, who had described ‘four square miles of reddish-brown scar, where everything had been buffeted down and burned’ but who was clearly more invested in the suppurating wounds and scarred flesh of the survivors. Consistent with the official sources from which Lear drew, his emphasis was instead on the geometries of destruction: only here and there did the bodies of ‘the burned, the crushed and the broken’ flicker into view. Still, the sting was in the tail. ‘Fortunately for all of us,’ Lear concluded fifty pages after his editor’s admonitory note, ‘the report you have just read is fiction.’ But ‘if it ever does happen, the frightfulness will almost certainly be more apocalyptic than anything described in these pages.’

‘For this documentary account is a conservative application to Manhattan Island of the minimum known consequences of explosion of one of the 1945 model A-bombs. And the Russians, if they once decide to attack us, surely will drop two or three or four of the 1950 models, each of which would ruin almost twice the area here circumscribed… In fact, one of the primary assumptions of current military planning for defense of the United States is that an enemy’s first move will be to try to disable not only New York but the entire Atlantic seaboard…’

Similar scenarios were regularly offered for other cities, including Chicago in 1950, Washington in 1953, Houston in 1955 and Los Angeles in 1961, and all of them dramatized their accounts through photomontages, maps and artwork.

Significantly, the burden of these accounts was on the effects of blast, burn and destruction. Hersey’s descriptions of radiation sickness in Hiroshima were not mirrored in the United States, where the government consistently minimized its dangers. For the benefit of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in February 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission superimposed the blast radius from the first hydrogen bomb detonated in the Marshall Islands the previous November (‘Ivy Mike’) over a map of Washington DC, and the conceit provoked laugher from members of Congress because the ‘zero point’ was centred on the White House not the Capitol.  The high-yield thermonuclear blast of Castle Bravo on 1 March 1954 was of a different order, and its fallout contaminated thousands of square miles. To illustrate its extent the AEC superimposed the plume over the eastern seaboard of the United States. Had this bomb been detonated over Washington, then Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York would have become uninhabitable.

President Eisenhower insisted on the map remaining classified, and when the New York Times splashed across its front page ‘The H-Bomb can wipe out any city’ its map was centred on New York and emphasised physical damage and destruction:

I rehearse all this because in her reflections on ‘the age of the world target’ Rey Chow writes of ‘the self-referential function of virtual worlding that was unleashed by the dropping of the atomic bombs, with the United States always occupying the position of the bomber, and other cultures always viewed as the … target fields.’  Yet, as I have shown, a common – perhaps even the most common – American response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years immediately after the war was precisely the opposite. To be sure, the preoccupation with American cities as targets was spectacularly self-referential. Peter Galison was not sure whether ‘the bombsight eye had already begun to look back’ before Hiroshima, but he had no doubt that analysts working in the atomic rubble started ‘to see America through the bombardier’s eye.’ In a further twist to the examples I have cited, he shows how this scopic regime was refracted so that US defence planning in the 1950s included a national programme of ‘self-targeting’ in which cities were required to transform large-scale maps of their communities into target zones for nuclear bombs: what Galison called a ‘new, bizarre yet pervasive form of Lacanian mirroring.’

[1] Third Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Force to the Secretary of War (12 November 1945), p. 59

[2] ‘The 36-Hour War: Arnold report hints at the catastrophe of the next great conflict’, Life, 19 November 1945, pp. 27-35; see also Alex Wellerstein, ‘The 36-Hour War’, Restricted Data, at http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2013/04/05/the-36-hour-war-life-magazine-1945, 5 April 2013.

[3] Kyo Maclear, Beclouded visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the art of witness (New York: SUNY Press, 1998); Barbara Marcon, ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the eye of the camera’, Third Text 25 (6) (2011) 787-97.

[4] ‘War’s ending’, Life, 20 August 1945, pp. 25-31. In an accompanying editorial on ‘The Atomic Age’, the unease of the magazine about the effects of the twin bombings haunted its uncertain prose. ‘Every step in [the] bomber’s progress has been more cruel than the last,’ the editors wrote. ‘From the very concept of strategic bombing, all the developments – night, pattern, saturation, area, indiscriminate – have led straight to Hiroshima, and Hiroshima was and was intended to be almost pure Schrecklichkeit [terror].’ The use of the German was deliberate; noting that the Hague ‘rules of war’ had been persistently violated during the war by both sides, the editorial insisted that ‘Americans, no less than Germans, have emerged from the tunnel with radically different standards and practices of permissible behaviour toward others’ (p. 32).

[5] It was this artfully staged geometry of destruction that enabled some apologists to treat Hiroshima and Nagasaki as no different from other Japanese cities that had been subject to US firebombing, and to erase the suffering of the victims of both air campaigns from the field of view.

[6] Philip Morrison, ‘If the bomb gets out of hand’, in One world or none (Federation of American Scientists, 1946) pp. 1-15; cf. The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Manhattan Engineer District, US Army, 29 June 1946, at http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/MED/index.shtml.

[7] ‘That the Survey had seldom, if ever, felt compelled to ask such a question as it pored over the ruins of Germany spoke to the sheer psychic effect of the magnitude of the new weapon’: Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures among the ruins of Atomic America (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) p. 74.

[8] The effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (US Strategic Bombing Survey, submitted 19 June 1946; published version 30 June 1946) pp. 39-41. The published version included a selection of photographs, virtually all of them aerial views, and the only photograph showing a victim was of a Japanese soldier with superficial burns: bodies were rendered as biomedical objects. Although most of the images obtained by the Survey remained classified, many of them are now available in David Monteyne, Adam Harrison Levy and John Dower (eds) Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945 (Göttingen: Steidl, 2011).

[9] John Hersey, ‘Hiroshima’, New Yorker, 31 August 1946. Hersey later explained that he wanted ‘to write about what happened not to buildings but to bodies’ and ‘cast about for a form to do that’; he found it on the marchlands between T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which he read onboard ship on his way to Japan). See John Hersey, ‘The Art of Fiction No 92’ (interview with Jonathan Dee), The Paris Review 100 (1986) 1-23. For commentaries, see Dan Gerstle, ‘John Hersey and Hiroshima’, Dissent 59 (2) (2012) 90-94; Patrick Sharp, ‘From Yellow Peril to Japanese wasteland’, Twentieth Century Literature 46 (2000) 434-52; Michael Yaavenditti, ‘John Hersey and the American conscience: the reception of “Hiroshima”’, Pacific Historical Review 43 (1974) 24-49.

[10] The Bantam edition appeared in 1948; Hersey, ‘Art of fiction’.

[11] Paula Rabinowitz, American Pulp: how paperbacks brought modernism to Main Street (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014) p. 211.

[12] John Lear, ‘Hiroshima USA’, Collier’s, 5 August 1950, pp. 11-15, 60-63: 15.

[13] Lear, ‘Hiroshima USA’, 62. One year later the magazine devoted an entire issue to ‘The war we do not want’ purporting to describe the defeat and occupation of the Soviet Union; the conflict was punctuated by air strikes on Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Washington and missiles launched from submarines against Boston, Los Angeles, Norfolk (Virginia), San Francisco, and Washington. There were also Soviet nuclear strikes on London and US saturation strikes on the Soviet Union: Collier’s, 27 August 1951.

[14] Richard Hewlett and Jack Holl, Atoms for Peace and War 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1989) p. 181. The map followed a press conference held by Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss, chairman of the AEC, who explained that by ‘any city’ he meant ‘the heart of Manhattan’: William Laurence, ‘Vast power bared’, New York Times, 1 April 1954. Strauss also shared with the press part of the briefing he had given the President; his reported remarks minimised any dangers from radioactivity: ‘any radioactivity falling into the test area would become harmless within a few miles’: ‘Text of statement and comments by Strauss on hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific’, New York Times, 1 April 1954.

[15] Rey Chow, in ‘The age of the world target: atomic bombs, alterity, area studies’, in her The age of the world target: self-referentiality in warm theory and comparative work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) pp. 25-43: 41.

Seeing ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes’

All the videos from Through Post-Atomic Eyes last October are now available on YouTube here, including my “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes. My slide deck is available under the DOWNLOADS tab.

This is the sawn-off 30-minute version; I’ll be giving an extended version when I’m at Dartmouth later this month – and I’m really looking forward to that.

Little Boys and Blue Skies

These are very preliminary notes and ideas for my presentation at “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month: I would really – really – welcome any comments, suggestions or advice.  I don’t usually post presentations in advance, and this is still a long way from the finished version, but in this case I am venturing into (irradiated) fields unknown to me until a few months ago…

CHOMSKY On Western terrorismAt first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable. It’s noticeable that the conversation between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek published as On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to drone warfare (2013) says virtually nothing about the two terms in its subtitle.

Yet nuclear weapons and drone strikes have both been attended by intense diplomatic, geopolitical and geo-legal manoeuvres, they have both sparked major oppositional campaigns by activist organisations, and they have both had major impacts on popular culture (as the two images below attest).



But there are other coincidences, connections and transformations that also bear close critical examination.

When Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay across the blue sky of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 one of his major concerns was to execute a fast, tight 155 degree turn to escape the effects of the blast from ‘Little Boy’.  There is some dispute over the precise escape angle – there’s an exhaustive discussion in the new preface to Paul Nahin‘s Chases and escapes: the mathematics of pursuit and evasion (second edition, 2007) – but the crucial point is the concern for the survival of the aircraft and its crew.

Enola Gay co-pilot [Robert Lewis]'s sketch after briefing of approach and 155 turn by the B-29s weaponeer William Parsons, 4 August 1945

Tibbets successfully made his escape but four years later, when the US Atomic Energy Commission was developing far more powerful bombs, the Air Force became convinced that escape from those blasts would be impossible. And so it implemented Project Brass Ring which was intended to convert B-47 Stratojet bombers into remotely-piloted aircraft capable of delivering atomic bombs without any loss of American lives.  (What follows is taken from Delmer Trester, ‘Thermonuclear weapon delivery by unmanned B-47: Project Brass Ring‘; it was included in A history of the Air Force Atomic Energy Program, 1949-1953, which can be downloaded here; you can obtain a quick overview here).

‘It appeared that the Air Force would need some method to deliver a 10,000-pound package over a distance of 4,000 nautical miles with an accuracy of at least two miles from the center of the target. It was expected the package would produce a lethal area so great that, were it released in a normal manner, the carrier would not survive the explosion effects. Although not mentioned by name, the “package” was a thermonuclear device – the hydrogen or H-bomb…

B-47 Stratojet bomber (USAF)

‘The ultimate objective was to fashion a B-47 carrier with completely automatic operation from take-off to bomb drop… The immediate plan included the director B-47A aircraft as a vital part of the mission. Under direction from the mother aircraft, the missile would take off, climb to altitude and establish cruise speed conditions. While still in friendly territory, the crew aboard the director checked out the missile and committed its instruments to automatically accomplish the remainder of the mission. This was all that was required of the director. The missile, once committed, had no provision for returning to its base… either the B-47 became a true missile and dived toward the target … or a mechanism triggered the bomb free, as in a normal bombing run.’

This was a re-run of Operation Aphrodite, a failed series of experiments carried out in the closing stages of the Second World War in Europe, and – as the images below show – after the war the Air Force had continued to experiment with B-17 aircraft remotely piloted from both ‘director aircraft’ [top image; the director aircraft is top right] and ‘ground control units’ [bottom image].  These operated under the aegis of the Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch which was created in 1946 in an attempt to establish the service’s proprietary rights over missile development.

B-17 drones

Ground control unit for B-17 drone

But the Brass Ring team soon discovered that their original task had swelled far beyond its original, taxing specifications: in October 1951 they were told that ‘the super-bomb’ would weigh 50,000 lbs. They modified their plans (and planes) accordingly, and after a series of setbacks the first test flight was successful:

‘The automatic take-off, climb and cruise sequence was initiated remotely from a ground control station. The aircraft azimuth, during take-off, was controlled by an auxiliary control station at the end of the runway. Subsequent maneuvers, descent and landing (including remote release of a drag parachute and application of brakes) were accomplished from the ground control station. The test was generally satisfactory; however, there were several aspects – certain level flight conditions, turn characteristics and the suitability of the aircraft as a “bombing platform” – which required further investigation.’

This was part of a larger imaginary in which, as Life had commented in its issue of 20 August 1945, echoing USAAF General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, ‘robot planes … and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’ (Arnold thought this a mixed blessing, and in an essay ghost-written with William Shockley he noted that nuclear weapons had made destruction ‘too cheap and easy’ – one bomb and one aircraft could replace hundreds of bombs and vast fleets of bombers – and a similar concern is often raised by critics of today’s Predators and Reapers who argue that their remote, often covert operations have lowered the threshold for military violence).

Henry H Hap Arnold.001

Brass Ring was abandoned on 13 March 1953, once the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the delivery safely (at least, for those on board).  It would be decades before another company closely associated with nuclear research – General Atomics (more here) – supplied the US Air Force with its first MQ-1 Predators.


These were originally conceived as unarmed, tactical not strategic platforms, designed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for conventional strike aircraft. But the concern with American lives became a leitmotif of both programs, and one of the foundations for today’s remote operations is the ability (as the USAF has it) to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

BOYER By the bomb's early lightThe visible effects of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese population were the subject of strict censorship – still photographs were never published, while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed – and public attention in the United States was turned more or less immediately towards visualising ‘Hiroshima USA’ (Paul Boyer is particularly good on this; there are also many images and a good discussion here). Even the US Strategic Bombing Survey indulged in the same speculation: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ it asked in its June 1946 report. ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.’ Although the original targets had been Asian cities it was American cities that were designated as future victims.  ‘Physically untouched by the war’ (apart from Pearl Harbor), Boyer wrote,

‘the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable.  Sole possessors and users of a devastating instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.’

This was the abiding anxiety instilled by the national security state and orchestrated through its military-industrial-media-entertainment complex throughout the post-war decades.  Perhaps the most famous sequence of images – imaginative geographies, I suppose –accompanied an essay by John Lear in Collier’s Magazine in August 1950, ‘Hiroshima USA: Can anything be done about it?‘, showing a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick imagining the effects of a nuclear strike on New York:

Hiroshima USA 11950-aug-6-colliers-p12-sm

Similar sequences, often accompanied by maps, were produced for many other cities (and the simulations continue: see, for example, here).  The images below, from Life on 19 November 1945, come from ‘The 36-Hour War’ (see here for a commentary) that envisaged a nuclear attack on multiple cities across the USA, including Washington DC, from (presumably Soviet) ‘rocket-launching sites [built] quickly and secretly in the jungle’ of equatorial Africa:



Schlosser-Command-and-Control-bookAs it happened, American cities did indeed become targets – for the US Air Force.  According to Eric Schlosser, under General Curtis Le May the goal was

to build a Strategic Air Command that could strike the Soviet Union with planes based in the United States and deliver every nuclear weapon at once. SAC bomber crews constantly trained and prepared for that all-out assault. They staged mock attacks on every city in the United States with a population larger than twenty-five thousand, practicing to drop atomic bombs on urban targets in the middle of the night. San Francisco was bombed more than six hundred times within a month.

VANDERBILT Survival CityTests were also conducted at the Nevada Proving Ground, ‘the most nuclear-bombed place on the planet’, to determine the likely effects.  One of the purposes of the Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division had been to document the effects of the bombs on buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to read them as ‘blueprints for the atomic future‘ – and both Japanese and American medical teams had been sent in shortly after the blasts to record their effects on bodies (from 1947 their work was subsumed under the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission).  It was now imperative bring the two together and to bring their results home.  And so, starting in 1953 with ‘Operation Doorstep’, mannequins were placed inside single-family houses at the Nevada site to calculate the prospects for the survival of what Joseph Masco calls the American ‘nuclearised’ family in the event of a nuclear attack; they subsequently went on public exhibition around the country with the tag line:

‘These mannikins could have been real people; in fact, they could have been you.’

In the Second World War experimental bombing runs had been staged against mock German and Japanese targets at the Dugway Proving Ground but – significantly – the buildings had no occupants: as Tom Vanderbilt wryly remarks, now ‘the inhabitants had been rewritten into the picture’ because the objective was to calibrate the lives of Americans.

Rachele Riley Mannequins

I have borrowed this image from the mesmerising work of artist Rachele Riley, whose project on The evolution of silence centres on Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site and raises a series of sharp questions about both the imagery and the soundscape of the nuclear age.

The power of the image – ‘the nuclear sublime’ – was one of the central objectives of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘the weapon’s devastating power had to be seen to be believed,’ as Kyo Maclear observed, and it had to be seen and believed in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  Here the visual economies of nuclear attacks are radically different from drone strikes. In the immediate aftermath there was no shortage of atomic ‘views from the air’ –  aerial photographs of the vast cloud towering into the sky and of Hiroshima before and after the bomb.  Here is Life (sic) on 20 August 1945:

LIFE:Hiroshima 1

LIFE:Hiroshima 2LIFE:Hiroshima 3

Yet for the most part, and with some significant exceptions, aerial views are singularly absent from today’s drone wars. To Svea Braeunert (‘Bringing the war home: how visual artists return the drone’s gaze‘) that is all the more remarkable because drone strikes are activated by what video artist Harun Farocki called operative images: but that is also the reason for the difference. Aerial photographs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki reveal a field of destruction in which bodies are conspicuously absent; the resolution level is too coarse to discern the bomb’s victims.

But the video feeds from a Predator or Reaper, for all their imperfections, are designed to identify (and kill) individuals, and their aerial gaze would – if disclosed – reveal the bodies of their victims. That is precisely why the videos are rarely released (and, according to Eyal Weizman, why satellite imagery used by investigators to reconstruct drone strikes is degraded to a resolution level incapable of registering a human body – which remains ‘hidden in the pixels‘ – and why their forensic visual analysis is forced to focus on buildings not bodies).

OMAR FAST %000 Feet is Best

One might expect visual artists to fill in the blank. Yet – a further contrast with Hiroshima – apart from projects like Omar Fast’s ‘5,000 Feet is Best’ (above) and Thomas van Houtryve’s ‘Blue Sky Days’ (below) there have been precious few attempts to imagine drone strikes on American soil.

van HOUTRYVE Blue Sky Days

Perhaps this is because they are so unlikely: at present these remote platforms can only be used in uncontested air space, against people or states who are unable (or in the case of Pakistan, unwilling) to defend themselves. But there has been a protracted debate about such strikes on American citizens (notably the case of Anwar al-Awlaki) and a concerted attempt to focus on the rules followed by the CIA and JSOC in their programs of targeted killing (which has artfully diverted public attention to Washington and away from Waziristan).

There is also a visceral, visible continuity between the two: just as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been little public concern over the victims of drone strikes, the vast majority of whom have once again been Asian.

If the targeting process continues to be racialised, it also continues to be bureaucratised. After the Second World War the US Air Force was determined to speed up its targeting cycle, and in 1946 started to compile a computerised database of potential targets in the Soviet Union; this was soon extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, and by 1960 the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World (now called the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’) contained 80,000 Consolidated Target Intelligence Files. These were harvested to plan Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strikes and to calibrate Damage and Contamination Models. One of the analysts responsible for nominating targets later described the process as ‘the bureaucratisation of homicide’. Similar criticisms have been launched against the ‘disposition matrix’ used by the CIA to nominate individuals authorised for targeted killing (see here and here); most of these are in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, though there are other kill lists, including Joint Prioritised Effects Lists compiled by the US military for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases the target files are in principle global in reach, and both nuclear strikes and targeted killings (outside established war zones) are judged to be sufficiently serious and ‘sensitive’ to require direct Presidential approval.

Speeding up the targeting cycle has involved more than the pre-emptive identification of targets. In contrast to the fixed targets for nuclear strikes, today’s Predators and Reapers are typically directed against mobile targets virtually impossible to locate in advance. Pursuing these fleeting ‘targets of opportunity’ relies on a rapidly changing and expanding suite of sensors to identify and track individuals in near-real time. In 2004 the Defense Science Board recommended the Pentagon establish ‘a “Manhattan Project”-like program for ID/TTI’ [identification, tagging, tracking and locating], and one year later a Technical Advisor working for the National Security Agency’s Target Reconnaissance and Survey Division posed the following question:

NSA's Little Boy

The onboard sensor suite in the pod has since become ever more effective in intercepting and monitoring electronic communications as part of a vast system of digital data capture, but Predators had already been armed with Hellfire missiles to compress the kill-chain still further, and to many commentators the most radical innovation in later modern war has been the fusion of sensor and shooter in a single platform. The new integrated systems were first trialled – on a Predator flown by test pilots from General Atomics – in February 2000 at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field. The main objective was to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden, and at the request of the Air Force and the CIA a series of tests was carried out.

First, the Air Force wanted to determine whether the Predator could withstand a missile being fired from beneath its insubstantial wings (a ghostly echo of earlier anxieties over the survivability of the Enola Gay and its successors – though plainly much reduced by the absence of any pilot on board).

Second, the CIA wanted to assess the likely effects of a Hellfire strike on the occupants of a single-storey building like those found in rural Afghanistan (nuclear tests had used mannequins and pigs as human surrogates; these used plywood cut-outs and watermelons).

predatorBoth sets of tests were eventually successful (see also here) but, as Richard Whittle shows in consummate detail, a series of legal and diplomatic obstacles remained. In order to secure satellite access over Afghanistan, previous Predator flights to find bin Laden had been flown from a ground control station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. But using a Predator to kill bin Laden was less straightforward. After protracted debate, US Government lawyers agreed that a Predator armed with a missile would not violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated nuclear and conventional missiles with intermediate ranges but which – unhelpfully for the CIA – defined missiles as ‘unmanned, self-propelled … weapon-delivery vehicles’; the lawyers determined that the Predator was merely a platform and, unlike a cruise missile, had no warhead so that it remained outside the Treaty. But they also insisted that the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany would require Berlin’s consent for the activation of an armed Predator. (The United States stored tactical nuclear warheads at Ramstein until 2005; although the US insisted it retained control over them, in the event of war they were to have been delivered by the Luftwaffe as part of a concerted NATO nuclear strike).

RAMSTEIN English captions

The need to bring Berlin onside (and so potentially compromise the secrecy of the project) was one of the main reasons why the ground control station was relocated to Indian Springs, connected to the satellite link at Ramstein through a fibre-optic cable under the Atlantic:


In fact, since 1952 Indian Springs had been a key portal into the Nevada Test Site – its purpose was to support both US Atomic Energy Commission nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Grounds and US Air Force operations at the Nellis Air Force Base’s vast Gunnery and Bombing Range – and in June 2005 it morphed into Creech Air Force Base: the main centre from which ‘remote-split’ operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are flown by USAF pilots. Most of the covert operations are directed by the CIA (some by Joint Special Operations Command), but the Predators and Reapers are used for more than targeted killing; the primary missions are still to provide ISR for conventional strikes and now also close air support for ground troops.


The geographies overlap, coalesce and – even allowing for the differences in scale – conjure up a radically diffuse and dispersed field of military violence.  When Tom Vanderbilt described ‘a war with no clear boundaries, no clear battlefields … a war waged in such secrecy that both records and physical locations are often utterly obscured’ he was talking about nuclear war.  But exactly the same could be said of today’s drone wars, those versions of later modern war in which the body becomes the battle space (‘warheads on foreheads’) and the hunting ground planetary: another dismal iteration of the ‘everywhere war’ (see here and here).

For all these connections and intersections, a key divide is the issue of civilians and casualties. On 9 August 1945 President Truman (below) described Hiroshima as a ‘military base’ selected ‘because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians’.

TRUMAN Hiroshima speech

This was simply untrue, and similar – often no less deceptive – formulations are routinely used to justify US drone strikes and to minimise what is now called ‘collateral damage’. Still, the scale of civilian casualties is clearly different: usually dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.

And yet, there is something irredeemably personal and solitary about the response to death from either cause; parents searching for the bodies of their children in the ruins are as alone in Dhatta Khel as they were in Hiroshima.  When Yukiko Hayashi [her real name is Sachiko Kawamura] describes the anguish of a young woman and her father finding the remains of their family – the poem, ‘Sky of Hiroshima‘, is autobiographical – it is surely not difficult to transpose its pathos to other children in other places:

Daddy squats down, and digs with his hands
Suddenly, his voice weak with exhaustion, he points
I throw the hoe aside
And dig at the spot with my hands
The tiles have grown warm in the sun
And we dig
With a grim and quiet intent

Mommy’s bone
When I squeezed it
White powder danced in the wind
Mommy’s bone
When I put it in my mouth
Tasted lonely
The unbearable sorrow
Began to rise in my father and I
Left alone
Screaming, and picking up bones
And putting them into the candy box
Where they made a rustle

My little brother was right beside my mommy
Little more than a skeleton
His insides, not burnt out completely
Lay exposed…

NOOR BEHRAM Orphans Dande Darpa Khel 21 August 2009

MASCO Theater of OperationsIn The Theater of Operations Joseph Masco draws a series of distinctions between the US national security state inaugurated by the first atomic bombs and the counter-terror state whose organs have proliferated since 9/11.

He properly (and brilliantly) insists on the affects instilled in the American public by the counter-terror state as vital parts of its purpose, logic and practice – yet he says virtually nothing about the affects induced amongst the vulnerable populations forced to ‘live under drones’ and its other modes of military and paramilitary violence.

In Waziristan no air raid sirens warn local people of a strike, no anti-aircraft systems protect them, and no air-raid shelters are available for them to seek refuge.


Hence young Zubair Rehman’s (above, top right) heartbreaking admission after a drone killed his grandmother as she tended the fields in Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan (see here and here):

‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.’

Post-atomic eyes


I’m speaking at a conference called “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month.

Through Post-Atomic Eyes brings together an interdisciplinary group of artists and scholars to explore the complex legacy of the atomic age in contemporary art and culture. In what ways do photography and other lens-based art practices shed light on this legacy in the 21st century, and how has atomic culture shaped contemporary intersections of photography, nuclear industries, and military techno-cultures? Join us as we explore some of the most urgent issues of our time, from climate change and the Anthropocene to surveillance culture and the advent of drone warfare, through a post-atomic lens.

Through Post-Atomic Eyes is scheduled to coincide with John O’Brian’s groundbreaking exhibition, Camera Atomica, the first substantial exhibition of nuclear photography to encompass the postwar period from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the meltdown at Fukushima in 2011. Now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (until November 15, 2015).

(John’s exhibition at the AGO follows a successful showing in London late last year: see my post here).

I confess that when I received the Toronto invitation I was at a loss: how was I supposed to view drone warfare through post-atomic eyes?  At first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable.  So I dragged my feet, accepting the invitation because the other presenters (see the poster above) include so many people whose work I admire, but not making much progress.

Eventually I realised that the root problem was that, while I had extensive research on genealogies of bombing under my belt, I knew next to nothing about The Bomb.  So, while I’ve been burrowing away in the archives in London for my project on casualty evacuation 1914-2014 and also inching my “Dirty Dancing’ essay into the home straight, I’ve also been reading and reading and reading.  So much wonderful, sobering material out there, some of which surfaced in my recent posts on Hiroshima and the metastases of nuclear weapons since then.

And, as I’ll try to show in detail in my next post, I’ve found a startling series of coincidences, convergences and transformations.  I now have a rough shape for my presentation, which I’m calling “Little Boys and Blue Skies“: a title which, as you’ll soon see, traces an arc from bombing Hiroshima to bombing Waziristan.  Watch this space.

The blue sky of Hiroshima


It’s the bleakest of anniversaries – the bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago today – and there is no shortage of commentary (see, for example, here and here).  John Hersey‘s book-length essay on Hiroshima, which filled most of  the 31 August 1946 issue of the New Yorker and has been republished online here.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

It’s worth comparing this with the opening scene of Kamila Shamsie‘s brilliant novel Burnt Shadows which imagines the second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.  Given the map I reproduce below, it’s also worth reading her short essay on the effect of using Google Earth to ‘map’ the bombing here; and since Nagasaki too often disappears from critical view, try Susan Southard‘s recently published Nagasaki: life after nuclear war (Viking/Penguin, 2015) – you can read a long extract here and here.


For a brave attempt to bring the the two bombings into the same narrative frame, see Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (2012/2014): there’s a helpful review essay by H. Bruce Franklin here, and The Atlantic has just published an extract, ‘The bureaucrats who singled out Hiroshima for destruction’ here.

Joyce C. Stearns, a scientist representing the Air Force, named the four shortlisted targets in order of preference: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. They were all “large urban areas of more than three miles in diameter;” “capable of being effectively damaged by the blast;” and “likely to be unattacked by next August.”… Tokyo had been struck from the list because it was already “rubble,” the minutes noted…

Captain William “Deak” Parsons, associate director of Los Alamos’s Ordnance Division, gave another reason to drop the bomb on a city center: “The human and material destruction would be obvious.” An intact urban area would show off the bomb to great effect. Whether the bomb hit soldiers, ordnance, and munitions factories, while desirable from a publicity point of view, was incidental to this line of thinking—and did not influence the final decision.

(You’ll have to read the extract to see why Kyoto was eventually removed from the list).


For subsequent analysis, a good place to start is Alex Wellerstein‘s Restricted Data: the nuclear secrecy blog, which includes a series of excellent posts on sources and visualizations, on the Manhattan Project and what happened at Los Alamos, and most recently an essay which asks ‘Where there alternatives to the atomic bombings?‘ and gives lots of background to those terrible events.

Among Alex’s visualizations is NUKEMAP, which simulates the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ on other towns and cities.  Here is downtown Vancouver (for a discussion of airbursts, see Alex’s post here).


Elsewhere, there’s a special issue of Critical Military Studies on the anniversary, and all the articles are open access:

The most modern city in the world: Isamu Noguchi’s cenotaph controversy and Hiroshima’s city of peace: Ran Zwigenberg
Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences: Yuki Miyamoto
Remembering nukes: collective memories and countering state history: Stefanie Fishel
Contested spaces of ethnicity: zainichi Korean accounts of the atomic bombings: Erik Ropers
Hiroshima and two paradoxes of Japanese nuclear perplexity: Thomas E. Doyle II
Re-imagining Hiroshima in Japan: elin o’Hara slavik
Memory and survival in everyday textures – Ishiuchi Miyako’s Here and Now: Atomic Bomb Artifacts, ひろしま/ Hiroshima 1945/2007: Makeda Best
Nagasaki Re-Imagined: the last shall be first: Kathleen Sullivan

There’s also a special issue of Thesis Eleven, (August 2015: 129 (1)) edited by Brad Evans and Keith Tester in association with the Histories of Violence ‘Disposable Life’ project; articles include:

Susan Neiman, Forgetting Hiroshima, remembering Auschwitz: Tales of two exhibits
Keith Tester, Hiroshima: Remembering and forgetting, everything and nothing
Michael J Shapiro, Hiroshima temporalities
Maja Zehfuss, (Nuclear) war and the memory of Nagasaki: Thinking at the (impossible) limit
Hiro Saito, The A-bomb victims’ plea for cosmopolitan commemoration: Toward reconciliation and world peace
Arne Johan Vetlesen, Post-Hiroshima reflections on extinction
Henry A Giroux, Hiroshima and the responsibility of intellectuals: Crisis, catastrophe, and the neoliberal disimagination machine

I have just two things to add.  The first is to draw attention to the firebombing of Japanese cities that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Alex compares them in an interesting commentary here and provides a series of compelling comparative interactives here: I’ve pasted an example below, and provided a short commentary here).


In fact, as my quotation from Paul Ham reveals, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted precisely because they had been left alone during the previous attacks and would provide effective laboratories to test the effects of nuclear blasts.  On the firebombing campaign, see the painstaking work of Cary Karacas and his colleagues here (my commentaries on the project are here and here; see also their essay on the firebombing of Tokyo and its legacy here); their website includes both a Hiroshima archive and a Nagasaki archive.

Second, I’ve emphasised the comparative effort to ‘bring the war home’, to imagine the effects of Little Boy and Fat Man on other cities around the world.  There are obvious dangers in such an exercise – is our capacity for empathy so limited than we have to rely on a sort of critical narcissism: ‘imagine if it happened to us‘? – but perhaps the most significant objection is that such cartographic conceits can erase not only the bodies incinerated and maimed (through the very abstraction of cartography) but also the racialization of these unmarked bodies.  In the characteristically thoughtful introduction to his new book, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (2015), Paul K. Saint Amour writes about ‘traumatic earliness’ – about the sense of anticipation, foreboding or bukimi that gripped the people of Hiroshima in the months before their collective deaths: that ‘uneasy combination of continued good fortune [escaping the firebombing] and expectation of catastrophe’.  But the ground had already been prepared in the United States, not only scientifically – the endless calculations, calibrations and experiments at Los Alamos – but also culturally.


Michael Sherry‘s The rise of American Air Power: the creation of Armageddon (1987) and Paul Williams‘s Race, ethnicity and nuclear war (2011) are indispensable here – and there’s a sharp, contemporary commentary from Arthur Chu here –  but a vivid example is provided by Alex de Seversky‘s Victory through Air Power (1942) and, in particular, its celebration in Walt Disney‘s film version released in 1943.  For Disney, there was not only ‘a thrill in the air’ but an exuberant delight at death and destruction on the Japanese ground.  You can watch the whole thing below (or on YouTube) but to see what I mean start at 1.07 and watch right through the bombing to the anthropomorphism of the American eagle and the Japanese octopus that follows it.  There’s also a short commentary by Henry Giroux here.

Note: My title is taken from this poem by Yukiko Hayashi; if you click on nothing else, please click on this.

After Hiroshima

slavick After HiroshimaFollowing my post on artists and bombing, and in particular the work of elin o’Hara slavick, elin has written with news of her new book, After Hiroshima, due in March from Daylight, with what she calls a ‘ridiculously brilliant essay’ from James Elkins.

If you’re interested in two different but none the less intimately related works, I recommend Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (Doubleday, 2012), which is extraordinarily good at placing those terrible attacks in the context of a strategic air war waged primarily against civilians (according to the Air Force Weekly Intelligence Review at the time, ‘There are no civilians in Japan’: sound familiar?) – and this needs to be read in conjunction with David Fedman and Cary Karacas, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’, Journal of historical geography 38 (2012) 303-26 (you can get a quick visual version here) – and Rosalyn Deutsche’s Hiroshima after Iraq: three studies in art and war (Columbia, 2010), based on her Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory given in 2009.

You can get a preview of elin’s ‘After Hiroshima’ project here. Scrolling down that page, my eye was caught by the image ‘Woman with burns through kimono’, taken in 1945, which transported me to another ridiculously brilliant work, Kamila Shamsie‘s dazzling novel Burnt Shadows.  I’ve been haunted by it ever since I read it, and in the draft of the first chapter of The everywhere war I start with this passage from the novel:

Burnt Shadows

And this is how I go on (and please remember this is a draft):

A man is being prepared for transfer to the American war prison at Guantanamo Bay: unshackled, he strips naked and waits on a cold steel bench for an orange jumpsuit.  ‘How did it come to this?’ he wonders.  This is the stark prologue to Kamila Shamsie’s luminous novel Burnt Shadows.  She finds her answer to his question in a journey from Nagasaki in August 1945 as the second atomic bomb explodes, through Delhi in 1947 on the brink of partition, to Pakistan in 1982-3 as trucks stacked with arms grind their way from the coast to the border training-camps, and so finally to New York, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in 2001-2.   These are all, in their different ways, conflict zones and the turning-points of empires, tracing an arc from the cataclysmic end of the Second World War through the Cold War to the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11.   In this book, I follow in her wake; I find myself returning to her writing again and again.  Although this is in part the product of her lyrical sensibility and imaginative range, there are three other reasons that go to the heart of my own project and which provide the framework for this chapter.

The first flows from the historical arc of the novel.   Shamsie is adamant that Burnt Shadows is not her ‘9/11 novel’.  She explains that it is not about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 but about the cost and consequences of state actions before and after.  Her long view reveals that the connections between Ground Zero in 1945 and Ground Zero in 2001 are more than metaphorical.  These are connections not equivalences – and far from simple – but like Shamsie I believe that many of the political and military responses to 9/11 can be traced back to the Cold War and its faltering end and, crucially, that the de-stabilization of the distinction between war and peace was not the febrile innovation of the ‘war on terror’.  I start by mapping that space of indistinction, and it will soon become clear that the dismal architects of the ‘war on terror’ (the scare-quotes are unavoidable) not only permanently deferred any prospect of peace but claimed to be fighting a radically new kind of war that required new allegiances, new modalities and new laws. Here too there are continuities with previous claims about new wars fought by the advanced militaries of the global North, conducted under the sign of a rolling Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, and quite other ‘new wars’ fought by rag-tag militias in the global South: all of them preceding 9/11.

I turn to those new wars next, and this brings me to the second reason why Shamsie’s work is relevant to my own discussion.  While she was writing Burnt Shadows she used Google Earth to disclose the textures of New York City, and marvelled at how obediently they swam into view: ‘3D models of buildings, amazingly high-resolution images, links to photographs and video streams of Manhattan.’ When she turned to Afghanistan, however, all the details dissolved into ‘an indistinct blur, and the only clues to topography came from colours within the blur: blue for rivers, brown for desert, green for fertile land.’  But that was then (2006).  Three years later, a different Afghanistan was brought into view.  ‘As I click through all the YouTube links tattooed across the skin of Afghanistan,’ she wrote, ‘I encounter video clips of American solders firing on the Taliban, Canadian politicians visiting troops, Dutch forces engaged in battle, an IED blast narrowly missing a convoy of US soldiers, a video game in which a chopper hails down missiles and bullets on a virtual city which looks more like Baghdad than Kabul.’  Shamsie uses these distinctions to remind us that ‘we’re still using maps to inscribe our stories on the world.’  So we are; and throughout this book I also turn to these violent cartographies, as Michael Shapiro calls them: maps, satellite images and other forms of visual imagery. These inscriptions and the narratives that they impose have a material form, and they shape both the ways in which we conduct ‘our’ wars and also the rhetoric through which we assert moral superiority over ‘their’ wars.  Yet even as I sketch out these contrasting imaginative geographies, another indistinction – a blurring, if you like – seeps in.  For one of the most telling features of contemporary warscapes is the commingling of these rival ‘new wars’ in the global borderlands, the ‘somewhere else’ that Abdullah reminds Kim is always the staging ground of America’s wars.

And this brings me to the final reason for travelling with Burnt Shadows: Abdullah’s insistence that war is like a disease.  This is an ironic reversal of the usual liberal prescription that justifies war – which is to say ‘our’ war – as a necessity: ‘killing to make life live’, as Michael Dillon and Julian Reid put it.  They argue that war in the name of liberalism is a profoundly bio-political strategy in which particular kinds of lives can only be secured and saved by sacrificing those of others.   You might say that war has always been thus, but what is distinctive about the contemporary conjunction of neo-liberalism and late modern war is its normative generalization of particular populations as at once the bearers and the guardians of the productive potential of ‘species-life’.  Here too there are terrible echoes of previous wars, and these brutal privileges depend, as they often did in the past, on discourses of science and economics (and on the couplings between them).  But contemporary bio-politics also draws its succour from new forms of the life sciences that treat life as ‘continuously emergent being’.  This is to conjure a world of continuous transformation in which emergence constantly threatens to become emergency: in which there is the ever-present possibility of life becoming dangerous to itself.  For this reason the social body must be constantly scanned and its pathologies tracked: security must deal not with a grid of fixed objects but a force-field of events, and war made not a periodic but a permanent process of anticipation and vigilance, containment and elimination.  Mark Duffield calls this ‘the biopolitics of unending war’ – war that extends far beyond the killing fields –in which the global borderlands become sites of special concern. Its prosecution involves the production of new geographies – new modes of division and distinction, tracing and tracking, measuring and marking – that provide new ways of continuing the liberal project of universalizing war in the pursuit of ‘peace’.  In the face of all this, Abdullah had a point.